abc of all

Posted on 25 juin 2013

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En français, auf Deutsch mais que cela soit écrit en romain ou en italique mais aussi pourquoi pas en amharique il faudrait décliner toutes les formes de la pensée écrite hors idéogrammes. Bref, TypoGrapho parce que WeLoveTypography.

Much lauded iLT (i Love Typography) has released a long note on the alphabet (2010-08), introducing its variety back to its origin in Sumer.

We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, in books and magazines; in fact, you are looking at it now — the Latin or Roman alphabet, the world’s most prolific, most widespread abc. Typography is a relatively recent invention, but to unearth the origins of alphabets, we will need to travel much
farther back in time, to an era contemporaneous with the emergence of (agricultural) civilisation itself.

SUMER – Cuneiform. « The Sumerians began to experiment with writing at the close of the fourth millennium BC, in Mesopotamia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (roughly modern-day Iraq). Like most writing systems, Cuneiform, initially scratched — later impressed by a stylus — into soft clay, started out as a series of pictograms — pictures representing words. The word for bird, for example, existed at first as a simple pictorial representation of a bird. The figure below demonstrates this process of abstraction or rationalization. In time, the pictures of things came to represent, not only things but, sounds. It is clear that a written language with signs that represent sounds requires fewer characters than a language in which a sign stands for a thing or an idea. We use 26 letters (and the Romans used only 23 to create some of the most outstanding literature the world has ever known) while the Chinese, for example, have to learn thousands of characters to express themselves. Even early cuneiform comprised some 1,500 pictograms. A language in which a picture or grapheme represents a thing or an idea has its advantages: people may speak any language while the written form stays the same. So a Chinese from the Southern provinces can speak a totally different dialect than his compatriot in Beijing, who would not understand him when he speaks, but can read what he writes. »
EGYPT – The writing of the gods. « The Egyptians developed a similar system of pictograms, one many of us are familiar with. Hieroglyphic inscriptions (literally sacred carving), like Cuneiform started out as pictograms, but later those same pictures were also used to represent speech sounds. Looking at the different forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs we can better understand how those pictures of things representing words became more and more abstract. While you might be familiar with the form of Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into stone (lapidary inscriptions), they do, however, come in several forms or styles — all influenced by the medium upon which they are written, the purpose for which they are written, and their intended audience. »
THE FIRST ALPHABETS – In Wadi el-Hol. « Until the discovery of two inscriptions (graffiti) in Wadi el-Hol, Egypt, in 1999, it was generally held that the beginnings of alphabetic scripts could be traced to around 1600 to 1500 BC, to the Phoenicians, a people of traders who lived on the coast of today’s Lebanon and Israel. However, the 1999 discovery reveals that, rather than the early Semitic alphabet being developed in their homeland of Syria-Palestine, it was instead developed by the Semitic-speaking people then living in Egypt. This strengthens the hypothesis there must have been ties between Egyptian scripts and their influence on those early Semitic or proto-Sinaitic alphabets. Moreover, it pushes back the origin of the alphabet to between 1900 and 1800 BC. »
PROTO SINAITIC – « At the same time as the short-lived ugaritic script was being developed (an alphabet adapted from Cuneiform), another alphabetic system emerged that was influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs. This proto-Sinaitic alphabet of consonants was pictographic, yet each pictograph represents a sound rather than a thing or idea. It is this proto-Sinaitic alphabet that really marks the starting point, the root of numerous modern-day alphabets, from Arabic and Hebrew to Greek and Latin. »
THE PHOENICIANS – The Purple People. « This simple and ingenious modern alphabet of consonants from which the last vestiges of pictograms had been erased, is indeed a merchant’s instrument: easy to learn, to write and to adapt. And adapted it was by cultures that we are generally much more familiar with: the Greek and Roman societies that form the base of modern Western civilisation and the lesser-known Tuscans. »
GREEK – Enter the vowel. « Although the earliest extant Greek inscriptions date back to the 8th century BC — the first Olympic games were held in 776 BC — many scholars think that the Greeks adopted the West Semitic Script (the Phoenician consonant alphabet) three centuries earlier. (note: Naveh, Millard, McCarter, and Cross concur. See Naveh, pp. 185-6). For a long time (at least until the widespread adoption of Ionian script in the fourth century BC), the Greek scripts followed no fixed direction, being written left to right, right to left, and in horizontal boustrophedon. (Braille is set boustrophedonically.) »
ETRUSCAN.
LATIN – Musical chairs & the tale of Z. « The Latin alphabet that we still use today was created by the Etruscans and the Romans, and derived from the Greek. It had only 23 letters: the J, U and W were missing. The J was represented by the I, the U was written as V and there was no need for a W. The story of the Z is particularly interesting. In the third century BC, the letter G (a variant of C) was added; Z was borrowed from the Greek, then dropped as Latin had no need for it — perhaps at the behest of the Roman censor Appius Claudius; G took its place in the line-up, until the first century BC, when the Romans decided they needed the Z for borrowed Greek words (when Greek literature became the vogue), they re-introduced it, and placed it at the end of the alphabet, where it remains to this day. »
RUSTIC CAPITALS. « From the square Roman capitals (preserved on the plinth of Trajan’s Column (114 AD), developed the freer-form and slightly more condensed Rustic capitals. »
Uncial & Half Uncial – The ‘lowercase’ makes its entrance. « Most writing was of course done on papyrus and on walls, informal and quick. The cursive was the letter that Martialis read aloud to his friends when he recited his poems at night. This was a letterform that could be jotted down quickly with a reed pen dipped in ink. The ‘old’ cursive is difficult to read but the ‘new’, that evolved from the 4th century onwards resembles our own writing. It spawned the much later Carolingian minuscule letter — the Adam & Eve of printing types used today. The second great invention, the codex, came at the same time. While the Romans used scrolls made of papyrus, in the fourth century somebody had the idea to cut parchment into oblong pieces and sew them together — thus creating the first random-accessible book. Together with the eminently readable script this must be considered one of the greatest inventions of all time. »
Carolingian to Gothic – An Emperor and a Yorkshireman. « A beautiful, legible book hand; long ascenders and descenders, letting in light between the lines, open and round letters with few ligatures and variant letterforms. The early Carolingian scripts share some features with the Roman Half-Uncial (the club shape ‘head serifs’ on the ascenders of b, d, h, and l, by the 11th century these were replaced by triangular serifs, similar to those we see in numerous roman typefaces of the incunabula (latter half of the 15th century). The early, rounder a was dropped in favour of one similar to that found in early Roman Uncials. In manuscripts penned in this hand, it is not uncommon to see the r with a descender. »
Roman – Enter typography. « Printing and 15th century humanism are closely related, and since the humanist philosophers and philologists (literally ‘lovers of words’, meaning they loved classical Latin) reintroduced classical Latin as the lingua franca of their class, it is no wonder that the first roman alphabets of the earliest printers only used the 23 letters of the classical era. The J was added later. The first J in print was probably made in Italy, early in the 16th century; the written form was first used in the Middle Ages, in France and the Netherlands. The W is a letter not known to the Latins but used often in the vernacular languages of the west. Well into the 17th century it was set in type as VV, but you will also find two Vs that have been cut down and joined to form a W.« .
Putting the pieces together.

I have focused on writing systems that contributed to the later development of the Latin alphabet, but of course the story of the written word is broader and more profound. I have not mentioned writing systems that developed independently (e.g. Chinese and Japanese), and other scripts that do owe a debt to the proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician alphabets, like Hebrew and Arabic. The evolution of writing cannot be fully appreciated (comprehended, even) in isolation. Its stories are woven deep into the fabric of histories and civilisations, its paths steered by politics, religion, economics, and by innumerable other factors. So, the next time you set pen to paper, or tap keys on your keyboard, take a moment to reflect on the origins of these simple signs, signs that furnish us with incredible power — the power to describe all things.

& :
TypoGrapho (WebOL) | Twitter/@webol/Typo.

EDIT : First version in 2010-09.

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